Monday, January 10, 2011

The Evil Eye (Belief) Is Still Very Strong

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah


The Saudi English-language daily newspaper Arab News reminded us in a recent article that “The evil eye [is still] an obsession for most Middle Eastern families”.
What is the “evil eye” (for anyone to whom this might be a totally alien and unheard-of concept)? It is the belief that someone may hurt a person or an object simply by looking at it with (conscious or unconscious) ill thoughts or feelings, such as envy or dislike. Needless to say, science rules out any such phenomenon, and one can easily point out various checks (simple test-situations) that will show this to be one of those cases of selective memory (one remembers only the results that “confirm” one’s prior belief, whereas all the results, “positive” and “negative”, would should the effect to be purely random).
One should immediately emphasize the fact that the “evil eye” concept exists well beyond the Arab-Muslim culture, and indeed it predates Islam by centuries, if not millennia. This is not to excuse any such superstition, but just to be fair and objective, as well as sociologically accurate and relevant in the hopeful search for a remedy to this problem (to the concept, that is, not to the “evil eye” itself).
So the Arab News article relates to us stories about present practices by people who take full account of the “evil eye” in their lives. We are told that it can “affect children, adults, livestock, and people’s possessions” and that “[p]eople who are young, wealthy and particularly handsome are considered more at risk.” So what do people do to protect themselves? In more orthodox environments, such as Saudi Arabia, they would insist with anyone expressing admiration about any of their belongings to immediately add “Ma Sha’ Allah” (“What Allah willed!”), or they (secretly) recite some Qur’anic verses right after an admiring statement is made. Quite often, people will adorn room walls with special verses, and sometimes Imams or Ulamas are asked to come and exorcise a house from an evil eye spell.
More superstitious people will resort to various practices, ranging from keeping everything secret to sprinkling water at places where envious people have sat (in one’s home), to putting a knife under a newborn’s pillow. In other cultures (e.g. Turkey or North Africa), people often resort to talismans, such as the famous “nazar” (“nazar boncugu” or “nazalik”) in Turkey, or the “khamsa” hand (a.k.a. “hamsa”) in North Africa and elsewhere (see images below). The “khamsa” is often given an Islamic connotation by relating the five fingers to the five important members of the Prophet’s house (with Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Hussain).




Wikipedia and its sources tell us that the concept can be found in ancient cultures and religions, including those of Egypt, where it may have originated, and those of Greece and Rome, as well as in the Old Testament.
In the Islamic culture, things are a bit more interesting. To my knowledge, the only Qur’anic verse that people often take to refer to the evil eye is “[Say I seek protection by Allah…] from the evil of the envious when he envies” (113:5). It does not appear that the verse is necessarily referring to the evil eye; the “evil of the envious when he envies” could be achieved by more “normal” ways. One should note, however, that the previous verse  in this (short) chapter (sura) mentions some ancient witchcraft practice, i.e. the “blowing on knots”.
The hadiths, however, do contain a number of explicit references to the evil eye. Not only is the Prophet said to have confirmed the existence of the evil eye (“The influence of an evil eye is a fact…” Sahih Muslim – Book 026, Number 5427), we find statements explaining how to cure from its effects (washing/performing ablutions and reciting certain prayers). The Islamic literature is also replete with stories of famous Muslims (Imams and scholars) who witnessed and/or discussed cases of evil eye, which can go to the extreme of someone killing a camel by looking at it with deliberate ill intent.
How does one rationally deal with such beliefs and practices in one’s society and culture? It should be clear that dismissing the phenomenon as scientifically bogus is not enough, for the traditionalists’ argument is first and foremost religious: “if the Prophet said it, and he was receiving revelation from on high, then it must be true, no matter what your science says”; besides, people will add, “your science doesn’t know everything, especially on human nature, does it?” In other words, this is not just belief in the paranormal; it is religiously-backed belief in the paranormal. And that explains why many educated people around me, I would say an overwhelming majority of them, believe in the evil eye without hesitation.
Interestingly, on most such issues, including Evolution, Cosmology, and much of Science, Qur’anic verses are easy to deal with, for two reasons: a) they rarely contain statements that clearly make a scientifically erroneous claim; b) they are often expressed in such a style as to allow one to interpret them metaphorically. Indeed, as we saw above, the verse on the “envious” is not too difficult to deal with. The problem is much more acute with the hadiths, and this is also the case with the topics of Evolution, Cosmology, etc.
I look forward to various views and contributions.

9 comments:

Benjamin Geer said...

Social scientists see belief in the evil eye as one of many ways of dealing with envy; see, for example, Foster (1972). There seems to be a relationship between envy and social inequality (Celse 2010). So instead of worrying about how to persuade people that the evil eye is a false belief, it might make more sense just to focus on reducing inequalities (including inequalities between men and women). As inequalities decrease, people will have fewer reasons to be envious, so belief in the evil eye should disappear.

Benjamin Geer said...

Also, Gary Gregg, The Middle East: A Cultural Psychology, pp. 145-148, for an interesting discussion of cross-cultural studies of belief in the evil eye and its relationship with social inequality.

Ali said...

Another interesting post, Nidhal. I have a few comments to make.

"... and much of Science, Qur’anic verses are easy to deal with, for two reasons: a) they RARELY contain statements that clearly make a scientifically erroneous claim;" (emphasis mine)

Give me even ONE example where the Qur'an makes a scientifically erroneous claim. I ask because I am yet to find one.

"... the “evil of the envious when he envies” could be achieved by more “normal” ways."

How?

"It should be clear that dismissing the phenomenon as scientifically bogus is not enough, for the traditionalists’ argument is first and foremost religious: ... "

Don't you think that scientists are a bit arrogant when they declare that what they cannot prove are all bogus?


...............

I partly agree with Ben's comment. Envy can be decreased by reducing inequality. But, non-existence of belief in the evil eye will not necessarily mean such a belief is false.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Benjamin wrote:
So instead of worrying about how to persuade people that the evil eye is a false belief, it might make more sense just to focus on reducing inequalities (including inequalities between men and women).

I disagree. Even if reducing inequalities does lead -- in the longer term -- to a reduction of such superstitions, it is still important to point out irrational thinking in any culture. Secondly, the "evil eye" is not always related to envy; sometimes it's dislike, and sometimes it's just "I can't help my bad eye"; believe me, I've run into people who say (to those they want to protect) "don't show me that good thing of yours, my eye is bad..." And the male-female factor is also complicated, not necessarily tied to the "inequality" part, as women inflict one another with the evil eye just as much as they inflict men (or so it is claimed).

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Ali, thanks for your appreciation and comments -- always interesting!

1/ By "rarely", I didn't mean that there are a few cases where the Qur'an is found to make claims that can be shown to be scientifically erroneous; I meant it's difficult to find such cases. And I've said before, and written at length elsewhere, that the Qur'an easily lends itself to metaphorical interpretations, and that only literalism leads to troubles. Having said this, I should point out that to this day (yes!) there are professors (yes!) who insist that the Qur'an rules out the Earth going around the Sun (and of course that it rules out biological and human evolution).

2/ Envy can lead to backstabbing and other real actions which produce all kinds of evils. So "the evil of the envious" is not necessarily some "eye effect", and indeed the "eye" is never mentioned in the Qur'an.

3/ If an effect cannot be repeated under controlled circumstances, then it is bogus. You can't say that scientists are being arrogant when they claim this effect is bogus; no, they can prove it's wrong, just as they do when they subject those claiming paranormal "abilities" to tests and show they're bogus.

Ali said...

Thanks, Nidhal.

"... I meant it's difficult to find such cases."

How is this different from what you said earlier?
The Qur'an does not make even a single claim that can be proved scientifically erroneous.

In my humble opinion, sometimes the language of the Qur'an is very, very dense. And because of this, we, human beings are unable to be certain of the real meaning.

"If an effect cannot be repeated under controlled circumstances, then it is bogus."

I disagree. :)
Your statement actually is a perfect example of arrogance shown by scientists.
But, according to your statement, evolution is also bogus.

Snuze said...

I think the reference in the Al-Quran and hadith focusses more on the reality of human nature, rather than any supernatural ability (which is mistakenly held on by those who believe in the "evil eye").

Envy is an inherently human trait; it can be used as a positive motivator to work harder and compete with the person(s) that one envied. Unfortunately, what is more common is the destructive side of envy: sabotaging (physically, mentally and emotionally) of the target of the envious thoughts. Such malicious acts do not necessarily require supernatural agents; but it is a convenient excuse to explain away failures and calamities.

It is easier to believe that someone cast the evil eye on you as the reason that your crop failed rather than because of poor farming strategy or microbial blight or simply the vagaries of the land. We are, after all, narcissistic creatures who are the heroes of our own story, no?

Mohamed said...

Great post, Dr. Guessoum! Do you know of any scientific studies done on the effects of the evil eye? I'm asking because several people tell me that if any studies are done they would confirm the effect. Personally, I don't think they're right simply on the grounds that it is unlikely.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Thanks, Mohamed.
I don't have a specific reference for any "null-hypothesis" experiment, such as those for the (claimed) paranormal phenomena, but I'll try to look sometime (when final exams are over...).